Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Half-Read Books; Or, Biting Off More Than I Can Chew

Last night, I finished Craig Thompson's Habibi. I'm letting it settle in my thoughts a little bit more before I write my review, so that I can write something more meaningful than "Not as good as Blankets" (which is sort of like saying that The Merry Wives of Windsor wasn't as good as Hamlet). 

Other reviews that are forthcoming:
Philip Roth's The Humbling (audiobook, disc 2 of 3)
The Vonnegut Statement, a collection of essays (page 90 of 253)
Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (page 50 of 350)
Ricardo Lagos' Southern Tiger (barely started)
Of Muscles and Men (essays on "Sword & Sand" movies, finally came in the mail earlier this week!)

Friday, February 24, 2012

Happy Friday!

Home today, a quiet day
Things I'd like best:
A clean kitchen, a hat
Maybe lunch over chess?
Yeah, I can arrange all that.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Book 8 of 52: Man Without A Country

And now I want to tell you about my late Uncle Alex. He was my father’s kid brother, a childless graduate of Harvard who was an honest life insurance salesman in Indianapolis. He was well-read and wise. And his principal complaint about other human beings was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, "If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is." So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is. 
-Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without A Country

When I started this book-a-week reading project, I didn't intend it to be Vonnegut heavy, but it is. I read Breakfast of Champions with a book club a few weeks ago, and I'm currently in the midst of The Vonnegut Statement and Bluebeard (probably my favorite).

Carol and I will pick out a book to read together, which usually mean I read it aloud as she falls to sleep. Short, light books work best; something with small chapters and not too many big words for me to stumble on.

I had read A Man Without A Country years ago when it first came out in 2007 and again a year or so later. I prefer his earlier collection of essays, Palm Sunday, which is deeper, denser and more tightly woven. But A Man Without A Country is the perfect late night read: funny and insightful, but brief and disjointed enough to be easy to put down.

Reading aloud is an enjoyable experience, if you're in the hands of a talented author. Mediocre work, I have found, remains mediocre. Some of the best (Joyce, Twain, Beckett) are a challenge without reading out loud. Some of the very good ones (Hemingway, Steinbeck, Vonnegut) are made significantly better out loud.
(It occurs to me that this list is entirely male, but those names are the ones that sprang to my mind when I thought of writers with a powerful "voice"; I wonder if this list reveals my preferences, in the same way that I prefer female folk singers but male rock-and-rollers, or if it is a result of socialization and the male dominance of "The Great Books"?).

Read out loud forces me to slow down, to absorb a little more, to pick up on the rhyme and cadence of the writing. It also allows ample time for me to make and repeat mistakes (it's the Sermon on the Mount, not the Mound; pitchers and catchers reported on Sunday, I must have had baseball on the brain).

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Pot Roast Over Pasta

Inspired by a friend, and confounded by the mounting price of ground beef and my more usual cooking meats at the grocery story, I decided to make a Pot Roast. Being me, I didn't make this decision in a way that allowed me to plan ahead, buy the things I would need for a pot roast, and serve it to my lovely wife as a meal.

I stood in the kitchen with a hunk of beef sitting on the kitchen counter, and I thought to myself, "I think I can do this."

I remembered Aundra's pot roast post, and consulting with The Joy of Cooking, determined that I did not have carrots, celery or any of the vegetables suggested for pot roast (other than onion, always plenty of onion and garlic in my kitchen). Those absent same vegetables feature prominently in the "Italian Style Pot Roast" on the next page.

But that recipe sparked a memory of a meal Carol and I had at one of our favorite Morristown restaurants: wild boar over pasta. I can do that, I figured.

So I followed the bones of the recipe: slit and stuffed the beef with garlic, olive oil and sage, then browned it on all sides in my biggest pot before setting it a side; sauteed my onion in the pot, then boiled away half a cup of red wine (should have added tomato paste, but reached this point in the recipe to realize I'm out- did I mention I didn't plan this meal very well?); reduced another cup of red wine and a cup chicken stock; put the meat back into the pot with another cup of red wine and another cup of chicken stock; finally, I let it simmer for about three hours, turning it every half an hour.

Maybe I was just fantastically hungry by the time I got to eat, or maybe it came out as well as I think it did... We boiled some pasta and sliced the meat thinly, against the grain, so that it came apart into thick strings. A little Parmesan cheese (one of the few things I can depend on my kitchen to have) and voila!

The best thing about it: there's plenty of left overs. (Those of you who do not appreciate the joy of leftovers should not make this meal unless you're feeding an army. Also, you make no sense. Who doesn't love leftovers?).

Monday, February 20, 2012

Disappointed by the Yankees and Raul Ibanez

The Yankees used some of the money from their trade of AJ Burnett today to sign OF Raul Ibanez.

This is tremendously disappointing.

Last year, against right handed pitching, Ibanez managed an anemic .256/.307/.440. As a point of reference, that's just about the same as the line that pushed Jorge Posada into retirement. No Yankee got 60 ABs in 2011 with an OBP that low.

What makes the deal tremendously disappointing, however, is how lousy Ibanez is in the field. Let's not talk about how UZR ranked him as the second worst fielder in the entire major leagues last year- UZR has its flaws, and I'm certainly not inclined to take it as gospel. Let's just talk about how Ibanez was never considered a brilliant defender, and he is now headed into his age 40 season.

If this guy gets time in the field, it means one of Swisher, Granderson or Gardner is on the bench. After a couple seasons of stellar outfield defense, it'll be hard for me to adjust to the sight of another Gary Sheffield level defender patrolling Yankee Stadium.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Happy Friday!

Normally, I put up music, but I've been so proud of my alma mater for the sportsmanship and empathy shown by the basketball team last weekend, so I'm sharing this instead:

Here's links to all the background you need to make you weepy:
"The Dagger," Yahoo Sports NCAA Basketball Blog
The Baltimore Sun sports section
The Philadelphia Daily News sports section
Newscast on ABC 2 in Baltimore, MD
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Sports Blog
The NCAA web site
The Chestertown Spy

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Book 7 of 52: The Ginger Man

The Ginger Man by J.P. Donleavy is one of the books I've had on my shelf for years that I've always meant to read. It was a gift from a friend who knew my love for rollicks.

The Ginger Man is every inch the rollick. Written in mainly as the running interior monologue of Sebastian Dangerfield, the text is littered with traces of the high modernists; Donleavy's punctuation seems haphazard until you realize that it's written in the cadence of Dangerfield's speech.

Maybe I'm getting older, but I didn't laugh through Dangerfield's drunken sexual adventures as much as I might have. In similar books (Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Slaughterhouse Five) the protagonists are motivated by a love for life in all its messy disorder. But in The Ginger Man, Dangerfield is nearly completely paralyzed by his need for money. He woos women almost offhandedly, juggling multiple affairs (including one with his wife), trying to decide which woman will offer him the most golden parachute.

The novel has, I think, an ambiguous ending, in which Dangerfield has finally found his meal ticket in a woman almost as unpredictably deranged as he is, or else in which he has restored the illusion of prosperity long enough to entrap a new woman in his maze of lies and false promises. I think the second possibility is the more interesting one, so that the novel ends almost exactly where it began.

While the plot may be farcical, Dangerfield's interior monologue is tragic. He lives a charmed life; he dodges his debtors, pillages a world of eager and able young women, steals his meals with smiles and light words. But his constant worries about money and where the next meal will come from rob these scenes of their joy. Maybe Dangerfield's anxieties hit too close to home, but I can't enjoy his escapades the way I enjoy the heroes of the books I mentioned earlier. Donleavy's story is a little too much like life.

Opposite Ends of the Kitchen

I made pork chops last night (pretty good ones, if I do say so myself).

Baked over slices of apple at 350 for 45 minutes. While the pork chops cooked I made a sauce: sauteed onions and garlic, 2 shakes of BBQ sauce, 3 shakes of sherry, some apple butter and some honey; bring it to a boil then simmer for 20 minutes. I don't have a recipe, it just sounded good. It was tangy and sweet, and I'm quite happy with how it turned out.

Two nights ago Carol made a layered chocolate cupcake. She saw a recipe on Pinterest with a lot of complaints from people who couldn't make it work. Carol took a look at the recipe and figured out she knew what needed to be different to fix it.

For years we've used the joke that I cook and she bakes. But as I was deciding what to add to my sauce, I was thinking about how I could never tweak a baking recipe that way. In the oven things have to rise, the oven temperature and the thickness of the pan have to align, before the oven door closes everything has to already been put together properly so no time to adjust.

That's why I cook; there's plenty of time to play with the flavor. But I admire everyone brave enough to play with their kitchen counter like a chemistry set.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Book 6 of 52: Ishmael

I actually finished Daniel Quinn's Ishmael about two weeks ago.
I've spent the intervening time trying to decide what to say about it. I've been trying to find something positive to say because it came to me on the recommendation of a friend, and because a quick Google search turns up positive review after positive review.

I hated it. I kept trying not to, but I hate it the way I hated the Star Wars prequels: a good idea that so wildly misses the mark from development to realization that a project I should support becomes one I oppose.

Let's start at the start: Ishmael is a novel/ philosophical tract in a hybrid dialogue-diary form a la Plato's dialogues, following the unnamed narrator (perhaps Daniel Quinn, the narrator is a writer; perhaps an Everyman) as he meets and learns from the gorilla Ishmael, who communicates via telepathy.

That's not the tough to swallow part.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Why I Like Horoscopes

Actually, I only like one very specific kind of horoscope: the kind written by my friend Jane (Link).

My horoscope this week:
Capricorn (Dec. 23-Jan. 20): Listen to Close to Me by The Cure and think about what closeness really is: the smells and everyday mistakes of intimacy, the song-exchange of friendship, the warmth of breakfast. Get whichever parts of closeness you can.
I like it because it walks that fine line between generic and applicable, in a week when I've felt a little bit lost at sea. It touches both ends of the beautiful, finds a romanticism in the everyday. We all need more of that in our lives. It sidesteps the mysticism and hokeyness of traditional horoscopes.  

It was exactly what I needed to brighten my Friday afternoon.

Happy Friday!

No cutesy rhymes this week. Just too tired. At least it's Friday.
Where's my coffee cup?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Deciding What to Fight, How and Why

I often disagree with what I read in David Brooks' columns in the NYTimes, but I (almost) always find his columns articulate, thoughtful and engaging. His column from February 2, How to Fight the Man, is no exception, and a particular passage has been echoing around in the back of my head:
The paradox of reform movements is that, if you want to defy authority, you probably shouldn’t think entirely for yourself. You should attach yourself to a counter-tradition and school of thought that has been developed over the centuries and that seems true.
These belief systems helped people envision alternate realities. They helped people explain why the things society values are not the things that should be valued. They gave movements a set of organizing principles. Joining a tradition doesn’t mean suppressing your individuality. Applying an ancient tradition to a new situation is a creative, stimulating and empowering act. Without a tradition, everything is impermanence and flux. 
In general, I would agree with Brooks that a revolution must be empowered by a belief in something that allows the revolutionaries to see the world as it should be, rather than as it is. But I think he misses a crucial piece of zeitgeist: the conjoining philosophies of many modern revolutionaries is a disbelief in the power of revolution, particularly in the pattern of revolutions overthrowing one order to establish a "new," all too similar, order.

In America, I'm thinking specifically of the various Occupy movements and the frustration stimulating the Tea Party, while abroad I'm thinking of the latest round of protests and the violent government reaction to the protests in Syria, Egypt, Russia and China. From everything I hear and read, there are undercurrents of a mantra claiming 'the system cannot be transformed or reformed, it must be entirely circumvented.' While there is no compromise and no negotiation, this refusal to articulate demands is not a form of nihilism; the unifying force behind the many revolutions is the conscious dismantling of the weapons used by institutions of power to pay lip service to reform.

In less public arenas, there are thousands of people trying to find ways to live the revolution. The proliferation of urban farmers and barter networks has been fueled by the belief that our current system is too deeply entrenched, too powerful, too seductive to change. For the modern revolutionaries, we live simultaneously in and around the capital-imperialist structure of the world. Having decided to fight "the man," we employ a strategy of non-engagement in hopes of avoiding being sucked back into the traditional power dynamics that subsumed each revolution from the Bolsheviks to the Beatniks to Flower Children to the Monday Demonstrations.

For one of these new style revolutions to be successful (and I doubt any one of them will, but perhaps the aggregate influences on our culture will give birth to the conditions to a genuine revolution) the revolution will have to grow in an organic way, one that historians can chart backwards through time, the way we chart the American Revolution back to the Enlightenment ideals of John Locke a century before, and back through European history to the Magna Carta. The revolution will be slow, but because it is slow, it might be complete.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Book 5 of 52: The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove

Christopher Moore is easily the most entertaining of living comic writers I've come across. While Moore's work lacks the articulated moral philosophy that shines in Vonnegut's best work (and encumbers his weakest), the characters of his novels each cartwheel through their own surreal science-fiction world.

Moore's 1999 novel, The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove, is no exception. From somewhere in the Pacific Ocean and into Pine Cove lumbers an evolutionary anomaly fed by Godzilla level radiation, able to effect peoples emotions; at the same time, the local psychiatrist takes all of her patients off their meds. Constable Theo Crowe investigates a string of murders and a town worth of strange behavior. Chaos ensues.

A fun little romp for a weekend.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Happy Friday!

I wished my boss a happy Monday on Monday morning, and she said to me, "It's so odd that you always say 'happy whatever day it is'. Doesn't it diminish the days you really want to be happy."

I was caught flat footed, and I'm sure I gave an inadequate answer to explain myself.

I wish a happy everyday because that's what I wish every day. What day do you want to be happier than this?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

That's Why They Call It Work

I started the week able to see my desk.
I'd like to end the week able to see my desk.

Not yet, though. Not there yet.

Not Quite Against the E-book

I am not, strictly speaking, an e-book basher. Neither am I an e-book reader. But the recent debate (inspired by Jonathan Franzen, who like most book lovers views the equation as an either/or division; who also, inexplicably, thinks "capitalists hate" traditional books because of their permanence, ignoring centuries of workers who have made the publication and distribution of books their trade) distilled a few points for me.

I'm a fairly heavy, if inconsistent reader. I can go days without picking up a book, then slam through 200 pages in an evening. I like books. I like the look and the smell of them, the color they bring to a room, the way friends notice the books lying around and the conversations this invites.

I also consume an unbelievable amount of digital text: work emails, NYTimes online, baseball blogs like Pinstripe Alley and Fangraphs and HardballTimes, the blogs of friends, g-chat, and all the corners of Wikipedia my curiosity drag me to. I don't want more electronic characters in my face, or in my life.

Carol has been reading e-books for a while now, and I think she reads e-books when she might not read the book. She likes the handling of the thing-itself less than I do, I think. She also has a harder time switching between books, grabbing a different book or the wrong one on the way out the door and then reading what you have, and the e-reader simplifies the "where'd I leave my book?" game.

I feel differently when I read. There is a climax in reaching the back cover of a book that I do not feel I would get from an e-book. The newspaper articles I read online only invite me further into the maze, drag me on to the next article. I don't know that an e-book would make me feel this way, but (so far) I have hesitated to risk my experience of a work on the new medium.

I'm sure I'll have an e-reader someday. When the books and readers are cheaper, when the copyright war is over, when they develop a satisfying way for me to annotate the text. The day will come, but it's not today.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Fitness, Balance, Limits

My favorite exercise is probably the Russian Twist.
I'm not any good at it. There are plenty of people who are phenomenally strong at their favorite exercise- they started strong in one area, so they excelled at that exercise, so they did it often, so they improved quickly, so they excelled.

The thing I like about the Russian Twist, and about most of the exercises in the Power Hour I've tried to make a part of my weekly routine, is how hard it is.

I find that difficulty inspiring, challenging and rewarding. But the reverse of that is recognizing my limits. I simply can't handle a workout at that level four consecutive days. Instead this semester, I'm trying a couple other fitness classes on my "off" days.

(How strange and surprising and interesting that I enjoy and, to a degree, depend upon the class structure to motivate me. Although I interact with and depend upon a team of colleagues at work, at the end of the day I complete my work alone, dividing and conquering vastly more often than collaborating. I find blogging a solitary sport, despite the encouraging comments left by readers. Reading, perhaps my favorite activity, is distinctly solitary.)

So, on Tuesday I attended my second ever Pilates class. It's a very different kind of workout than the cardio-intensity of Power Hour, and I suspect I'm going to have to learn how to get the most out of it, in a way I didn't have to learn in the fast paced class. The movements were challenging (in a couple cases overwhelmingly so), but I wasn't at the end of class left with the exhaustion and 'burn' feeling that I've come to equate with a successful workout.

Which needs to change? It seems that either I have to learn how to maximize my Pilates workout to get value from this new class, or I have to adjust my definition of what the evening after a workout feels like.